Artist Maki Naro teams up with writer (and physicist) Matthew R. Francis for his latest comic for The Nib, which explores the the age-old question: Is reality real? Elon Musk–CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, leader of various interesting projects, and full time public futurist–recently made the case for philosopher Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument. Bostrom says that a sufficiently advanced society could run an ancestor simulation that would be indistinguishable from real reality and maybe already is. Musk takes this a step further to argue that, hey, maybe, probably we’re already living in one of these simulations. In Are We Living In A Computer Simulation? Naro examines the possibility that we’re all background characters in the Nolan brothers’ most complicated film yet and why that idea fascinates so many futurists and tech leaders.
For Bostrom, there are three possibilities when it comes to mass civilizational simulations: 1) Most civilizations don’t reach a post-human (post-alien? post-Singularity cyborg similization?) stage; 2) Most civilizations aren’t into repurposing their history for the universe’s biggest Sims game; 3) There are definitely people kind of like us who think this a good idea and have already put it into action. In Philosophical Quarterly he put it like this,
“One thing that later generations might do with their super-powerful computers is run detailed simulations of their forebears or of people like their forebears. Because their computers would be so powerful, they could run a great many such simulations. Suppose that these simulated people are conscious (as they would be if the simulations were sufficiently fine-grained and if a certain quite widely accepted position in the philosophy of mind is correct). Then it could be the case that the vast majority of minds like ours do not belong to the original race but rather to people simulated by the advanced descendants of an original race. It is then possible to argue that, if this were the case, we would be rational to think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones. Therefore, if we don’t think that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears.”
That’s fine, I guess. Someone, somewhere is probably living in a simulated version of their civilization’s past. Some AI schmuck, with everything we consider consciousness, sentience, and individuality, is going through the motions of struggling to survive and thrive in an unreal world. The universe is vast, and beings like playing games, telling stories, and indulging in fantasies. So Bostrom is right. If the inclination and possibility exists, someone has done it. But it’s probably not us, or rather, it’s probably not our far distant post-human descendants. We contemporary human-humans are probably not very complicated game sprites. If we are, we’re sad, non-playable characters in what must be the worst game ever designed.
So, if Bostrom is right and someone has made a giant simulation, the question that now remains is why? Why develop so complex a simulation that’s just a perfect recreation of a civilization’s past? Why keep not just the good and the bad, the heroic and the deplorable, but why keep all the mundane bullshit of everyday life? What purpose would such dull cruelty serve? Well, why does a civilization now create simulations–stories, games, etc.–of its past? For entertainment of course, but also because it serves some ideological sense of mission and reassures us about our mythic now. All of our pop history, and even a lot of our history-history, is about now. How we frame the past, and what we emphasize within it, is entirely in service to the present. George Santayana said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but we don’t merely remember the past, unbiased. We remember it piecemeal, recreate it usefully, and rarely learn the lessons we don’t want to. We do not recreate it exactly; we recreate the parts that serve the plot. Donald Trump doesn’t want to make America Sims again, he wants to make it “great;” the slogan invokes a particular fictional, white supremacist past which serves to justify #MAGA’s particular fictional, white supremacist vision of now.
In The Matrix, the simulation exists because it’s a convenient way for the machines to keep us occupied while they use our bodies to power theirs. In Westworld, the simulation exists so that the Delos Corporation can sell memberships to bored rich people, I guess. If it’s all a manufactured illusion, the manufacturing must serve some material or philosophical purpose; usually, in fiction, it’s one or another kind of exploitation.
Francis raises two objections to the simulation argument:
- “Simulations always involve simplifications and assumptions. More accurate simulations require more computing power … In other words, if we’re in a simulation there’s probably somewhere the programmers had to cut corners.”
- “There’s a measure of cruelty in the idea of simulating such a universe. Simulated or not, most humans don’t live happy, healthy, wealthy lives. Why simulate a world in which simulated people are unhappy, while making them think it’s real?”
These are logical objections to the argument that pretty incisively cut the heart of why Musk, et. al., find the simulation hypothesis appealing. If every bit of our lives–the dirt, dust, pain, and inequality, the heteronormativity, rape culture, and colonialism, the war, mass starvation, and genocides–is in the simulation, it was considered important to the simulation designers. Some being, not a god, just a person with a really big computer, decided that all of our suffering, along with all of our boredom and joy, was worth recreating in full. Along the way they must have cut corners and made mistakes, but everything that we do experience and perceive was put there for a reason, even if just set decoration. So why is it there?
The simulation hypothesis perhaps seems less terrible to a tech billionaire who has, as Francis puts it, “already won the game.” Musk is one of the few playable characters in this unnecessarily complex game, someone who isn’t trapped in a tight story loop, whose existence can’t be boiled down to a quest trigger for the truly significant among us. But Musk and others like him have bought in a little too much to Bostrom’s third possibility and made it necessity. It’s true that mythologyzing our collective past–and defining who is included in “our” “collective” “past”–is a fantastic civilizational glue, but it’s not true that increasingly complex simulations are necessary to a civilization’s existence. MMOs do not a world make. The simulation hypothesis is a hopeful necessity, better even than the idea that we’re living really real lives, because Musk can identify with the simulator and his work. It validates his worldview quite nicely.